History

  • Issue 8 / October - December 1994



    English Converts To Islam 2

    A. Kose

    Conversion patterns

    Lofland and Skonovd (1981) distinguish six types of conversion patterns-intellectual, mystical, experimental, affectional, revivalistic, and coercive. Of these six, the patterns most common among the 70 converts to Islam studied for this paper, are intellectual, affectional and experimental. The affectional pattern (which may be defined as 'example and imitation') and the intellectual pattern ('response to teaching') cover the most significant characteristics of conversion to Islam, usually accompanied by the experimental pattern ('trying it out'). Mystical and coercive patterns were also found though the latter is extremely rare. The revivalist motif, in which the individual undergoes highly emotional stimulation, was non-existent.

    The intellectual pattern was found in 50(71%) cases. The affectional and experimental motifs also played a role in conversion, but these individuals revealed how scepticism about their previous beliefs and their intellectual discovery of the 'logical consistency' of Islam prompted their conversion. The affectional motif was dominant in 46 (66%) cases who cited personal contact with Muslims as an important factor. These Muslims, whose opinions or behaviour are valued, offered living examples of the Islamic faith, attractive to those with whom they came into contact. Some converts had been most affected by the Islamic concept of brotherhood. Others were deeply affected through periods of stay in Muslim countries where they saw how the religion can really influence the society.

    No matter what the motivating factors, the majority of converts went through a period of 'experimentation'. 42 (60%) came to Islam after studying or spending a considerable amount of time among Muslim friends, families, or in Muslim countries. As well as getting information and impressions from Muslims, and reading about Islam, they visited mosques and attended meetings and even joined the prayers to see and try it out for themselves. 10 (14%) converts reported having a mystical experience before they decided to embrace Islam.

    As for the most important motivating factors, the converts cited response to the teachings of Islam with regard to religious beliefs, moral and social issues, and the spiritual aspects of Islam (see chart).


    The converts entered Islam by various paths and for a variety of reasons. Some accepted it after long study, some in order to marry a Muslim, or after marrying a Muslim. Whatever the reasons and purposes of their choice to convert, conversion rarely happened without human contact. All but 9 converts had been in contact with Muslims in one way or another over a long period of time before they made their decision. It is, therefore, suggested that personal contact with an adherent of Islam is nearly always a contributory factor in the conversion of individuals to the faith. However, it must be emphasized that converts were already oriented towards a religious quest, and then found intellectual satisfaction with what was offered to them.

    The overwhelming majority of the converts speak of a gradual process involving conversation with Muslims, reading of the Qur'an, and/or other Islamic literature, and in some cases journeying to Muslim lands. 16 (23%) people's first contact with Islam was through literature. 16 (23%) people were first introduced to Islam when they travelled to a Muslim country. 26 (37%) reported they first knew about Islam through conversations with Muslims. 10 (14%) came into contact with Islam through male/female relations. This included 3 female converts who followed their English husbands' conversion while 2 had one of their family members or a relative convert to Islam (see chart).

    Conversion age

    Early studies, at the turn of the century, of converts to or within Christianity found conversion to be primarily an adolescent phenomenon (Starhuck, 1911, p.38 Hall, 1920, pp.288-92). By and large this trend seems to continue today (Argyle, 1958, p.61). In contrast to studies of conversion within Christianity, studies of conversion to contemporary religious cults indicate that conversions take place at a later age, in the late teens or early 20s (Ullman, 1989, p.110).

    The conversion age for Western converts to Islam presents a striking contrast. In fact, Poston's (1992) questionnaire study of European and American converts to Islam found the average conversion age to be 31.4 years. The average conversion age for the English converts to Islam is 29.7; ranging from 15 to 61 with the vast majority falling into the 23-45 year- old age group.

    In Britain less than 15 percent of the population attend church each week. Over half of those who attend at the age of 13 have ceased to do so by the time they are 20. Furthermore, by school leaving age, very few young people still claim any allegiance to the Christian churches (Francis, 1984, p l0). This is, in fact, what most of the converts to Islam experienced in their late adolescence. Some had been religious in their pre-adolescent years, but this religiousness had disappeared, in part because they had been taught at secondary school, or by society in general, to think rationally about religious matters. They then lost their capacity for religious experiences, and Christianity lost its plausibility for them. They became restless with the religious tradition of their family or society, questioning critically its intellectual, moral and religious adequacy. Tony, 17, bitterly criticized the society:

    'This society doesn't make you know about religion. It is wrapped up in the wrong way of life; just working, sleeping, drinking. Religion is not mentioned to people. I went to a Christian school. They taught us we came from apes. That's the evolution they believed in, not God. So it was a Church of England school believing in Christianity ... their own church made us believe in evolution, whereas evolution is about not believing in God. My age-group now is being taught nothing about religion at all. So this society just wants to bring you up not to live in God or not to worry, just to think about the world.'

    Adolescence was the age that the future converts to Islam began questioning the application of their religion in the larger society, or looking for answers to life's basic questions, or raising questions about the basic creeds of the religion they were taught to believe in in childhood. Again, it was in adolescence that they attempted to fashion a consistent personal code of moral behaviour in a changing culture of uncertain values. Yet it was not in adolescence that they converted to Islam. If we take the figure of 16 years as the age of conversion in a Christian context and 29 for the present sample, this gives over 10 years during which time the person was neglectful of religion or was experimenting with other alternatives. This period may well be explained by Erikson's concept of a 'moratorium period'. Erikson observed that many adolescents struggling with the integration process opt to 'retreat' for a period of time in order to work out a plan of self-reorganization or integration without disturbance from mundane realities (Erikson, 1962: 43-4). During the 'moratorium period' most adopted secular identities by which they accomplished integration without resort to conversion, and some tried to explore other alternatives. Yet this was only a temporary and perhaps incomplete integration, as they eventually searched for a religious alternative. As one convert put it:

    'They let the religious thing lie asleep' at the back of their minds for a few years.

    Conclusion

    Conversion is necessarily a multifaceted experience, and it is obvious that not all conversions are of the same type. However, conversions to Islam are usually a complex and gradual process which is prepared by individual conditions over a long period. They are voluntary; not the result of a sudden resolution of spiritual conflicts but, generally, conversions of adults often oriented to points of doctrine. In the light of this study, a process model for English converts to Islam may be outlined as follows:

    Firstly, for the religious conversion to occur, the individuals must have rejected the religion and values presented by parents or society in early or late adolescence and enter a period of 'moratorium' that lasts several years. At the end of this period they must still he experiencing disillusionment with the old religion and the society at large. During this period they must have either cognitive concerns, sometimes leading to a search for answers from other religions or emotional distress resulting from personal problems like divorce which in the end leads to contemplating religion as the possible answer. Apparently, because of the earlier dissatisfaction with the old religion, the possibility of returning to it is ruled out. By the end of the first stage, the individuals must have something in their background experience that makes them in some measure sensitive to the message of Islam.

    Secondly, by this stage the new perspective (Islam) must be available. The potential converts must encounter Islam through social relationships (this could he through pre-existing ties like marriage or chance encounters), and mass media or any other available source of information. Affective ties to Muslims, though not always necessary, are usually developed. The individual must he favorably affected by the good example of Muslims or by the ethos of Muslim institutions (as they are perceived), and at the same time question the truth of Islam, eventually accepting it.

    Thirdly, the individuals go through a preparational period. Before announcing conversion, the individual has to play the role of convert by gradually learning some practices of Islam, and adopting a life-style which becomes a part of a new self-definition. The potential convert investigates the acceptability of the religion, to test it out through an 'experimental' orientation to it, rather than blindly embracing it without considerable thought. The decision to convert is therefore rightly characterized as intellectual', the end result of a deliberate choice made after careful examination and consideration, as opposed to one stemming from a purely emotional response.

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